Tikal: Guatemala’s Cultural and Natural Heritage Site in the Heart of the Maya Forest
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Tikal: Guatemala’s Cultural and Natural Heritage Site in the Heart of the Maya Forest

In Guatemala we have a very strong cultural heritage, with a unique combination of Maya, European and Caribbean influences. Guatemala’s Mayan cultural heritage is specifically strong, representing the diversity of over twenty different Mayan groups, each with different languages, traditional ethnic wears, colors, foods and worldviews. They all share some similarities, some more than others, but each also shine curiously in their own way. One of the most studied elements of this heritage are the archaeological sites like Copán, Chichén Itzá and Tikal. Over four hundred Ancient Maya cities have been discovered over the course of almost two centuries of expeditions, buried beneath dense and biodiverse rain forests. These reveal great commercial, ceremonial, astronomical and agricultural complexity, capturing the attention of researchers all over the world.

Tikal National Park is a perfect example of the amazing archeological heritage of Maya civilization. Embedded within the much larger Maya Biosphere Reserve, it is located in what is known as the Heart of the Maya World. The Maya Forest covers much of the region of Petén in Guatemala, extending into neighboring Belize and southern Mexico, occupying more than 21,000km². A major political, economic, ceremonial and agricultural metropolis, it is a world known natural and archaeological site which comprises temples, ceremonial platforms, residences, ball-game courts, city squares and multiple roads. Some of the most famous architectural monuments in Tikal include the Temple of the Great Jaguar, Temple of the Mask and Temple of the Jaguar Priest. It is also home to an amazing wildlife, including emblematic mammals like jaguars, monkeys, anteaters; birds like the Resplendent Quetzal; and hundreds (if not thousands) of plant species, some of them known and others waiting to be discovered in the depths of the Mayan Forest.

Tikal, a World Heritage Site

In 1979, Tikal was declared as a World Heritage Site: these are areas that are given international legal protection by UNESCO due to cultural, natural or mixed relevance, because they are considered to be of “Outstanding Universal Value”. Guatemala has four official World Heritage Sites, but only Tikal is considered to be a mixed site due to its equally important biodiversity and archaeological heritage. A remarkable sixty thousand hectares of wetlands, savannas and tropical forests pair with architectural and artistic remains of the Mayan civilization from the Preclassic Period. This beautiful combination makes Tikal fascinating in uncountable aspects: the diverse and mixed ecosystems are home to a huge biodiversity spectrum of flora, fauna and fungi, which cohabits beautifully with the remains of one of the largest urban centers of the Maya civilization.

Impressive road networks connecting Ancient Cities

Amongst the most interesting and researched aspects of Tikal are its complex road networks, both within the city and between sites (some connecting cities hundreds of miles apart, like between Tikal and Copan, in Honduras, for example). Mile after mile of hundreds of roads between cities forming a network believed to be one of the first freeway systems in the world. These interconnections are a current topic of interest for researchers of diverse scientific fields. In fact, a group of archaeologists were very recently able to unveil thousands of houses, palaces and elevated highways hidden beneath the jungle landscape. This was possible using a technology called LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), which allowed to digitally remove the tree canopies from aerial photographs. This revealed that the ruins of the city of Tikal are far more complex and interconnected than what was supposed by earlier archaeologists. National Geographic even stated that these results suggest that Central America supported an advanced civilization comparable to cultures such as ancient Greece or China!

Tikal’s water, one of the oldest zeolite purification systems

Another astonishing research aspect of Tikal are its hydraulic systems. Due to the fact that Tikal is located on a seasonally droughted uplifted karst area, where permanent water lies dozens of meters below the surface, water availability was one of the biggest challenges. A complex hydraulic system was set in place to provide water to the city’s population even during dry seasons. Actually, recent evidence suggests that the oldest known zeolite water purification systems occur in the Corriental Reservoir at Tikal. This system relied on crystalline quartz and zeolite (a compound of silicon and aluminum) to purify the city’s drinking water, materials used in modern water irrigation systems. Also, diverse farming methods were used, which is believed to be a strong factor in the development of a more complex and urbanized population. Amongst these farming and water-access methods we can find different irrigation systems, for example one that consisted of a series of dams built on hilltops which used the slopes to distribute water to the city through several canals.

Maya architecture which reflects great astronomical and mathematical knowledge

Thousands of these interesting and curious details, like hidden roads or natural water purifying systems, already make this site worth your while and attention. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth mentioning that the architecture of Tikal itself is what initially rattled the passionate hearts of researchers all over the globe. Ceremonial architecture and urban design, sophisticated hieroglyphics carefully carved into stelae, stepped terraces, the location of the temples, etc. have been the focus of many studies over the years. These have helped researchers learn more and more each year about the reality of ancient Maya life. We know, for example, that the ancient Maya were highly skilled astronomers because their knowledge of the stars and planets was reflected in their architecture. In fact, the temples in Tikal are aligned with the sunrise on the equinoxes. This not only because it allows some of the most beautiful views in nature, it was also believed to be a way to connect with the gods and to mark the passage of time. Thanks to these studies we also know that the Mayan numeral and mathematical system was fairly complex, being one of the earliest cultures to introduce the concept of “zero” as a number.

Photography by: María Alejandra Gutiérrez, FLAAR Mesoamérica, 2010. Tikal National Park, Maya Biosphere Reserve, Petén, Guatemala.
Tikal Temples in the afternoon. Photography by: María Alejandra Gutiérrez, FLAAR Mesoamérica, 2010. Tikal National Park, Maya Biosphere Reserve, Petén, Guatemala.
FLAAR Mesoamerica’s staff photo.
Photography by: FLAAR Mesoamerica, Oct. 22, 2022. Uaxactún, Petén, Guatemala.

Cited References

  • 2023
  • Agriculture in the Ancient Maya Lowlands (Part 2): Landesque capital and Long-term Resource Management Strategies. Journal of Archaeological Research.Available online:
  • 2018
  • Imperial resource management at the ancient Maya city of Tikal: A resilience model of sustainability and collapse. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, Vol. 52. Pages 113–122.Available online:
  • LOOPER, M.G.
  • 1999
  • New Perspectives on the Late Classic Political History of Quirigua, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica, Vol. 10. Cambridge University Press.Available online:
  • 2020
  • Zeolite water purification at Tikal, an ancient Maya city in Guatemala. Scientific Reports, 10(1).Available online:



Written by Alejandra Valenzuela.

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